I stopped by a neighborhood organization recently to inquire about upcoming actions against our local Republican congressman, and in the course of the conversation with a young staff person, she mentioned to me that their aim is to “build power,” as they engage in their day to day activities.
Her response didn’t surprise me. Power, after all, is a reality in social conflicts. It counts a lot in deciding the outcome of clashes between contending sides in disputes over one thing or another. The sheep seldom comes out the winner when matched against the wolf.
But the conversation reminded me of an article on power, socialism, and the communist movement that has been gathering dust, so to speak, on my Google cloud. I began it months ago with the expectation that it would see the light of day long before now, but what with the election last year, and Trump’s first 100 days, I got preoccupied and, as a result, its stay on the cloud was extended. And had it not been for this recent conversation, it would have probably remained there.
In the communist movement of the 20th century where I spent most of my adult life, the main frame for understanding and changing the world was the balance of power among contending class and political forces. If the balance tilted toward the capitalist class and its allies, the prospects of progressive and radical change narrowed; or, still worse, if the tilt turned into a decisive swing, they disappeared and democratic movements found themselves on the defensive, as they do now. If, on the other hand, the balance shifted towards the working class and its allies, opportunities arose to expand economic, social, and political rights and freedoms. The New Deal period comes to mind.
Going a step further, a seismic shift in power to the advantage of the working class opened the door to a socialist future. This shift, however, was only the first moment of an extended process in which the working class and its “vanguard” party secured, consolidated, and expanded their power to radically construct a new state, economy, and society. Whatever facilitated this process was welcomed and needed little or no justification. Meanwhile, anything that hindered it was to be resisted by any means necessary.
In this framing, socialist values, norms, and aims — most importantly the creation of a field of action on which working people and their allies become the actual creators, architects, and producers of a new society that is democratic, egalitarian, sustainable, and humane — took a back seat to the exigencies of power against socialism’s “enemies.” If there were any tensions, ambiguities, contradictions, or dangers in such an approach and practice, they were rarely acknowledged and thus more rarely the subject of any serious examination.
Now, it was one thing to hold this view in the early part of the last century, when socialism was in its infancy and it felt like a turning point in human history had arrived, compelling everyone, in the words of “The Internationale” (the song of the international communist movement) “to stand in their place.”
But to subscribe to it long into the second half of that century, as I (and most communists) did, is quite another thing.
A critical look at the experience of socialism should have told us that a transfer in power, while necessary, is nothing close to a sufficient condition for socialism. Nor is it the defining feature of a socialism that measures up to its ideals, aspirations, and potentials.
Frederick Engels once wrote that revolutions are authoritarian affairs that turn on the question of power. He failed to add that once power passes from the hands of the old ruling elite, a process, both structured and spontaneous, of devolving and decentralizing power to democratic institutions and a popular majority should ensue on a broad scale.
This didn’t happen in the Soviet Union, except for a short burst of freedom in the early days. Instead, power became further centralized and it begat still more centralization in fewer and fewer hands in order to combat socialism’s opponents and build a new society in circumstances that were less than ideal.
Moreover, what was temporary and contingent became permanent and institutionalized as it acquired a social constituency, consisting of upper and middle level leaders and managers of the party, state, and economy that had a stake in maintaining the existing political, economic, and ideological setup. This made it a stubborn thing to uproot, even when conditions changed and popular desires for a more democratic and humane socialism grew.
Power, in short, became detached from socialism’s overarching essence, values, and aims. Stalin, it goes without saying, played an outsized role in this process. His desire for unchecked power, reinforced by his distortions of marxism and skewed notions of building socialism in encircled and backward Russia made for a hyper explosive brew. And the fallout was staggering — to the Soviet people, first of all, but also to the image and future of socialism.
Indeed, a near singular emphasis on the accumulation and centralization of power led to the eventual meltdown of the USSR as well as other socialist countries in Eastern Europe with barely a whimper from the class that the ruling parties claimed to represent.
But well before that happened, what seemed unimaginable became the ideologically sanctioned practice of Soviet authorities under Stalin: torture, executions, and show trials, labor camps and mass incarcerations, relocations of entire peoples, gross violations of democratic rights, the hollowing out of democratic institutions, massive surveillance and an accompanying climate of fear and suspicion, and the deaths of millions of innocents.
After Stalin’s death, the worst practices of those years ended and attempts were made to liberalize Soviet and the Eastern European socialist societies, but each attempt quickly ran up against concentrated bureaucratic and political power — sometimes police authorities and military might — that placed narrow limits on the reforming impulse. As a result, democracy and human freedom remained formal and cramped, civil society languished, and an independent press and culture worthy of the name never saw the light of day. Dissent fled into the kitchen and other crevices of private life.
It is ironic that U.S. communists — and again, I was one of them — expressed great outrage at the mention of the McCarthy period’s violations of democracy and attacks on communists, but, with some notable exceptions, had little to say about the social disaster and horror of the Stalin period and the long arc of unfreedom and eventually stagnation that followed. And when we did, it was either to say that no other alternatives were available, or an admission (at times reluctant) that “mistakes” were made, or an insistence on a “balanced” assessment of Soviet socialism.
Our mistake, however, wasn’t so much an inability to recognize irony. But more to the point, it was an indefensible failure of political, moral, and intellectual imagination, caught, as we were, in an embedded internal culture and world movement that resisted by and large critical thinking and reflection on such matters.
Responsibility for the downgrading of socialist values and humanism and the reduction of democracy from core features of socialism to simply instruments of policy — not to mention the transformation of a marxism that is dialectical, open to new experience, and subject to critique into Marxism-Leninism, a rigid ideology that legitimized practices that were inhumane, undemocratic, and anti-socialist — lies, in the first place, with its communist protagonists in the 20th century. However, a measure of responsibility also falls on Marx, Engels and especially Lenin. In their efforts to counter utopian notions, place socialism on a materialist theoretical foundation, and elaborate a path to socialism in the heat of contentious battles, they sometimes made sweeping assertions without delineating the limits of their application or the operation of competing tendencies. or shades and subtleties of meaning. Nor did they give in many instances sufficient emphasis in their analysis to socialism’s democratic, ethical, and emancipatory vision as an essential frame for the elaboration of revolutionary and socialist practice.
Even if we assume that the 21st century leaders of the left have learned the necessary lessons from the experience of the 20th century, we still have to ask what measures are necessary to guarantee that power and its practitioners are subordinated to (and, when necessary, reined in by) socialist values, norms, vision, and democratically constituted bodies.
This is a discussion for the many who are laboring in today’s vineyards, but I will make a few general observations.
1) Power should never again be the property of any one party (or movement). There is little evidence for the notion that under socialism social contradictions disappear and thus obviating the need for a multi-party system. Certainly, the idea of a constitutionally enshrined vanguard party should be left in the past, where it made its unfortunate entrance.
Much the same can be said about state-controlled media. Experience abounds that an independent and broadly based media is crucial in socialist as well as capitalist societies. Among other things, it is a key, and sometimes the only, reliable voice that will expose misdeeds and corruption at the top levels of official society.
2) There must be legal prohibitions on unchecked use of power that eviscerates democratic freedoms and rights. E. P. Thompson, the great British historian who wrote in the Marxist tradition, made this observation in his famous afterword to Whigs and Hunters: The Origins of the Black Act (1975):
“I am told that, just beyond the horizon, new forms of working class power are about to arise which, being founded upon egalitarian productive relations, will require no inhibition and can dispense with the negative restrictions of bourgeois legalism. A historian is unqualified to pronounce on such utopian projections. All that he knows is that he can bring in support of them no evidence whatsoever. His advice might be: watch this new power for a century or two before you cut down your hedges.”
Good advice, even if we believe with great conviction that we will never be so wrongheaded or shortsighted as were many communist leaders in the last century.
3) Power has to be devolved and decentralized to the people and popular institutions. In other words, the socialist state, economy, culture, and society have to be creatively transformed and thoroughly democratized and socialized in accordance with the emancipatory values and vision of socialism. And the only hope of such an outcome is a multi-racial, working class-based, majoritarian movement of great depth, understanding, and unity, that acts as socialism’s midwife and stays engaged long into its old age.
In case you think I have been hard on Engels, let me end with a quote from Marx’s closest collaborator that is germane and incisive:
“If the conditions have changed in the case of war between nations, this is no less true in the case of the class struggle. The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organization, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for with body and soul. The history of the last fifty years has taught us that.”